Spectacle on Mount Chaparri - Visionary Thinkers in Peru Launch a Private Reserve to Help Endangered Bears and Reward Local People
De Roy, Tui, National Wildlife
WE ARE IN NORTHERN Peru searching for secretive spectacled bears. No luck so far. Instead, we awake to the mournful courtship calls of small, gray doves drifting up from a fog-filled valley and, closer by, the nervous buzz of a tiny amazilia hummingbird. But as I climb out of my sleeping bag, I survey our surroundings and discover that, in the failing light of dusk, we had inadvertently set up camp near clear signs of our quest: Etched in the smooth trunk of a sturdy tree are large, slashing claw marks. Not too long ago, a bear had climbed up to survey its territory.
For three days now, along with a small group of fellow bear enthusiasts, I have been skirting around a 4,500-foot-high, craggy rock formation called Mount Chaparri in hopes of just such a discovery. The claw marks are a palpable sign not only that bears are close by, but that a remarkable social experiment involving wildlife and people is working.
Mount Chaparri-which stretches from the foothills of the lofty Andean Cordillera into lowland desert plains like the sharp claw of a mountain-size dinosaur-is a key part of this endangered bear's range. The coastal desert gives way to a unique habitat of deciduous dry forest before rising into mountainous cloud forest further inland. No rain falls for at least nine months of the year, but cool mist wafts in over the lowlands from the distant sea. It is in these cloud forests along the steep Andes from Venezuela to Brazil that the bear typically lives.
For the people near Mount Chaparri, its imposing bulk has always commanded magical status. Until recently, only shamans dared live in its shadow, collecting herbs from its sacred flanks where bears and other wildlife found respite from heavy hunting pressures. But last December, the mountain, along with 117 square miles of surrounding habitat, became the first legally declared private conservation reserve in Peru. In the process, the bear, which was once persecuted as a cattle predator, has morphed from villain to mascot in the locals' hearts.
This history-making accomplishment is the work of two visionary men. One is Heinz Plenge, Peru's foremost wildlife photographer. The other is Bernie Peyton, a spectacled bear biologist from Berkeley, California-respected as the world expert on the species. Through their joint dreams, an unconventional scheme is emerging that will compensate local people for the wise stewardship of their wild heritage.
We get a firsthand sense of what's at stake as we continue our exploration. Our path takes us along a clear, gurgling stream up to its source in a steep-sided canyon, where desert frogs sing and wild tomatoes grow. While a majestic Andean condor sweeps low over our heads, we scramble up a precipitous arroyo to a knife-edge ridge between two watersheds.
Bear signs increase noticeably as we pass close under the brooding presence of Mount Chaparri and descend into the valley on the other side: Here, a young pasallo tree shredded for the tender, edible pulp inside its trunk; there, a patch of ripe nightshade berries where a bear fed and left droppings. Still, we spot no wild bears, although it is likely that they have been watching us.
To see the animals, we must complete the loop back to our starting point, a spacious, quasi-natural rehabilitation center, tucked away in a secluded valley. The place serves as a halfway home for bears rescued from illegal captivity. Nearby, a discreet house constructed of straw- colored adobe overlooks a permanent spring-fed stream.
Here I find Heinz Plenge. A soft-spoken Peruvian whose great- grandparents came from Germany, Plenge is putting the finishing touches on his new solar-powered home in the wilderness. Over lunch he tells me his story. "It all started three years ago," he begins. "I'd just turned 50 and knew I couldn't spend the rest of my days trudging though …
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Publication information: Article title: Spectacle on Mount Chaparri - Visionary Thinkers in Peru Launch a Private Reserve to Help Endangered Bears and Reward Local People. Contributors: De Roy, Tui - Author. Magazine title: National Wildlife. Volume: 40. Issue: 4 Publication date: June-July 2002. Page number: Not available. © 1999 National Wildlife Federation. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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